Synthetic Biology: Predicting Public Opinion

Credit: UK Government
Credit: UK Government

Note: I have joined the “virtual class” component of Dan Kahan‘s Science of Science Communication course at Yale University. As part of this I am endeavoring to write a response paper in reaction to each week’s set of readings. I will post these responses here on my blog – my paper for week nine is below. Previous responses are here. I will also be participating in the discussion on Kahan’s own blog.

This week’s (well, last week’s) reading focused on synthetic biology. Dan invited us to imagine that the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy had asked us to study the public’s likely reaction to this emerging technology. What kind of studies would we do?

The readings were:

Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues. New Directions: The Ethics of Synthetic Biology and Emerging Technologies (December 2010).

Pauwels, E. Review of quantitative and qualitative studies on U.S. public perceptions of synthetic biology. Syst Synth Biol 3, 37-46 (2009).

Dragojlovic, N. & Einsiedel, E. Playing God or just unnatural? Religious beliefs and approval of synthetic biology. Public Understanding of Science 22, 869-885 (published online 2012, version of record 2013 – for convenience’s sake, I will refer to this as “Dragojlovic 2012”)

Dragojlovic, N. & Einsiedel, E. Framing Synthetic Biology: Evolutionary Distance, Conceptions of Nature, and the Unnaturalness Objection. Science Communication (2013)

I want to start off by taking stock: listing what we appear to know already, based on this week’s readings, and then figure out what outstanding questions remain.

What we know(ish)

Here’s a summary of findings from the readings (roughly organized from strongest evidence base to weakest):

  • Most people know little or nothing about synthetic biology (Pauwels)
  • The familiarity argument – that as people become more familiar with a technology, their support for the technology will increase – is not well supported (Pauwels, others)
  • For many people, synthetic biology provokes concerns about “playing God” and who has the right to “create life” (Pauwels, Dragojlovic 2012)
  • Framing for synthetic biology is similar to that for cloning, genetic engineering and stem cell research (Pauwels)
  • Domain of application has an effect on framing (Pauwels)
  • Acceptance of risk-benefit tradeoff depends on oversight structure that can manage unknowns, human and environmental concerns, and long-term effects (Pauwels)
  • Belief in God increases disapproval of synbio through two mechanisms – the idea (among weak believers) that genetic manipulation interferes with nature, and the idea (among strong believers) of encroachment on divine prerogative (Dragojlovic 2012)
  • Framing synbio as “unnatural” leads to negative perceptions only when characteristics of the particular technological application – eg, evolutionary distance between DNA donor and DNA host – increase perceived relevance of such arguments (Dragojlovic 2013)
  • Individuals who view nature as sacred or spiritual are most responsive to unnaturalness framing (Dragojlovic 2013)

Now, to answer the questions – via a little additional reading.


Part 1: Single study

The question:

Imagine you were asked by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to do a single study to help forecast the public’s likely reaction to synthetic biology. What sort of study would you do?”

At this juncture, it is probably more useful to model the general reactions people have and the associations they make when they learn about synthetic biology, rather than simply polling their support for the technology. (As we previously discussed, there’s little external validity to questions asking for opinions on something that most respondents don’t understand.)

I think the starting point would have to be more qualitative studies (or – cheating a bit – a mixed-methods study that starts with a qualitative phase). There seems to be little sense in creating a quantitative study in which the choices of responses are simply sentiments that we guessed people would entertain – far better to convene focus groups and see what sentiments people actually entertain. This would lay the groundwork for more informed quantitative studies.

Among the reading for this week, the only qualitative research was the pair of Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars studies discussed in Pauwels. These produced some insights – but as Pauwels points out, “The most important conclusion of this article is the need for additional investigation of different factors that will shape public perceptions about synthetic biology, its potential benefits, and its potential risks.”

Some of this work has now been carried out.

Looking beyond the week’s reading, I see that the Wilson Center has continued to carry out both qualitative and quantitative studies, some of which Pauwels summarized in a 2013 paper, “Public Understanding of Synthetic Biology.

Her major findings were:

  • Before hearing a definition of synthetic biology and learning about its applications, participants tended to describe synbio through comparisons to other biotechnology, such as cloning, genetic engineering and stem cell research. This could be crucial to understanding the ways that public debate about synbio might evolve, Pauwels contends.
  • Participants – even some of those generally positive about synthetic biology – expressed concerns about unintended consequences. (Interesting to note that some of these concerns came up when discussing genetically modified mosquitoes, a topic from a previous week in this class.)
  • Participants’ value judgment about synthetic biology varied depending on the technology’s proposed application. If the proposed application was in an environment that appeared more contained, participants were less concerned about risks.
  • Participants expressed ambivalence about engineering life. These attitudes take the form not only of the much-discussed unease at “creating life” and “playing God,” but also much more generalized anxiety – “this term makes me feel scared.”

This is is a very good start, but I feel there’s a bit more unpacking a qualitative study could do.

For example, under “ambivalence toward engineering life,” Pauwels includes the following reactions from participants:

It could also be dangerous if we do not research it enough to find out any long­term effects.”

“This could lead to huge scientific advances, but it can also lead to countries or people using it for their own ‘evil agendas.’ It reminds me of Jurassic Park.”

“It seems exciting but makes me somewhat uncomfortable. Where are the limits?”

“It sounds like we are playing God. Who are we as humans to think [that] we can design or redesign life? It might be nice to be able to do so, but is it right? It seems [that] there are many ethical and moral issues. Perhaps we are getting too arrogant.”

“I feel concerned because, not being perfect, we believe we know what is best in creating life. As in science­ fiction movies, when we do—in time—it goes in a direction we didn’t think about… I believe [that] when life is created, it is meant to be created that way for a purpose we may not even know right now.”

There are many underlying fears and concerns there, expressed in various combinations. These include concerns about unknowables (to coin a phrase, both known unknowns and unknown unknowns), longterm effects, human and scientific hubris, immoral applications by bad actors, security, unnaturalness, and violations of nature or of God’s dominion. There’s also an implied recognition (“where are the limits?” “many ethical and moral issues”) of the need to prevent technological applications that exceed society’s moral norms, and of the potential of technological advances to change the very locus of our morality.

I’m particular concerned with the need to explore the public’s feelings on moral limits. So far studies of the public’s moral objections to synthetic biology has focused on intrinsic moral objections (it is wrong to usurp God’s position as creator) rather than extrinsic moral objections (certain applications would be morally problematic). This seems strange given that as a society we have already collectively recognized some biotech applications as unethical – most notably, human cloning. It therefore seems imperative to explore public opinion on the subject, and try to separate measures of intrinsic and extrinsic moral objection.

With this preliminary information at hand, the most useful question to ask next is which of these attitudes, or general sets of attitudes, is most responsible for a negative predisposition to synthetic biology.

Part 2: More studies

The question:

Imagine you conducted the first study and the OSTP said, “wow, that’s a great start, one that convinces us that we need to do a lot more. We’d like you to outline a comprehensive program of empirical study—consisting of as many individual studies, building progressively on each other, as you like—with a budget of $25 million and a lifespan of 36 months.” What might such a program look like?”

I would propose a series of quantitative studies that would seek to model a situation in which citizens learn about synthetic biology, and then seek establish the frequency of the ideas and opinions expressed in the qualitative study.

Participants would be given a basic description of synthetic biology, and would then be asked to agree or disagree with the following (or perhaps, indicate their level of agreement on a multi-point scale):

  • Synthetic biology is unnatural.
  • Those who practice synthetic biology are playing God.
  • Synthetic biology scares me.
  • Synthetic biology just feels wrong.
  • If we start using synthetic biology, we may not be able to control the consequences. (With variations for environment, human health, security.)
  • I’m concerned that we don’t know what the long-term effects of synthetic biology will be. (With variations for environment, human health, security.)
  • Synthetic biology holds great promise.
  • Synthetic biology is exciting.
  • Synthetic biology could improve people’s lives.
  • Etc.

Potentially a great deal could be learned just in the correlation between these responses. For example, are there many respondents who say synthetic biology “just feels wrong,” but don’t agree with any of the usual-suspect statements about why it feels wrong? This indicates either that synthetic biology taps into a deep-seated fear that people find difficult to attribute cause or voice to – or perhaps that thre is an expressible reason for their misgiving that we haven’t yet succeeded in drawing out of qualitative study participants.

Another hypothesis to explore: perhaps this a strong correlation between unnatural/playing God responses and fear of unintended consequences. This may indicate that expressions such as “playing God” are sometimes used less to express a religious or spiritual conviction, and more to express a sense of humanity’s hubris.

It would be useful to pair these questions with a five-point measure of respondents’ support for synthetic biology, to try and determine the relationship between support strength and various attitudes.

I think it could also be useful to ask a series of questions that attempt to get at the way people make risk-benefit analyses about synthetic biology. This may also have an interesting bearing on their level of support. (As Dragojlovic (2012) points out, a key further question to arise from that study was, how do we consider risk-benefit trade-offs in way that accommodates value-based risks?) Participants could be asked to agree or disagree (on a five-point scale) with the following:

  • The risks of synthetic biology outweigh the benefits.
  • The benefits of synthetic biology outweigh the risks.
  • There is no acceptable level of risk for a technology or product. (Perhaps ask variations on this tailored to human health, environment, etc.)
  • The best way to judge whether we should use a technology is to weigh the benefits against the risks.
  • It doesn’t matter what the benefits or risks of a technology are; if it’s unethical, we shouldn’t use it.
  • The “rightness” or “wrongness” of synthetic biology depends on how it’s used.

Etc, etc – that’s an imperfect start, for sure, but I think with the right questions we could get into an interesting area of psychology.

Outstanding questions

There is, of course, much more that can be investigated. Here were the major area that Pauwels and Dragojlovic highlighted as ripe for future research – along with a few extra thoughts of my own.

  • We need further investigation of factors that will shape public perceptions about synthetic biology, and its benefits and risks (Pauwels). I think this is key – several of the studies we read followed up on “playing God”/”creation of life” concerns, but these concerns are probably only responsible for a small proportion of objections to synthetic biology. In Dragojlovic 2013, the baseline model, which included only the experimental manipulations (unnaturalness framing, evolutionary distance and so on), explained about 5% of variance in attitudes. This, Dragojlovic says, shows that most attitude variance is due to other factors.
  • Pauwels asks about nature of claims raised by “playing God”/”creation of life” concerns: “does it refer to polarization involving broad cultural/philosophical dimensions or to polarization strictly linked to religious values?” Dragojlovic 2012 illuminates some aspects of this but leaves further questions on table. Intriguingly, the Presidential Commission says it “learned that secular critics of the field are more likely to use the phrase “playing God” than are religious groups.” This may hold true only for organizational leaders and not for the populace at large, but it still neatly points out the importance of separating the religious and philosophical/cultural dimensions of the “playing God objection.”
  • Note that Dragojlovic 2012 was carried out in Europe – so a similar study of religious objections carried out in the US could yield quite different results.
  • What constitute effective counter-arguments to the unnaturalness objection? (Dragojlovic 2013)
  • Identify conditions under which advocates and opponents of emerging technology can use rhetorical frames to shape how citizens perceive the technology (Dragojlovic 2013)
  • Who is more or less likely to be swayed out of the unnaturalness objection – the religious or the irreligious?
  • What is the relationship between the “unnaturalness” and “playing God” objections? It seems like there is a lot of overlap, but an effective communications strategy would surely depend on understanding how each interacts with personal identity, which are simply immutable and which more finely shaded, etc.

One Reply to “Synthetic Biology: Predicting Public Opinion”

  1. Tamar,
    Nice thoughts. Many of these thoughts have been addressed in previous ‘scary’ topics such as molecular biology, genetic modification, nuclear power, automobiles, and even long bows.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s